What Is Impulse Control Disorder?

Everyone displays impulsive behaviors from time to time. Whether it is in the form of eating a piece of cake when on a diet or buying a pair of shoes you don’t need, occasional impulsivity is normal. However, for a person with an impulse control disorder, they do not feel in control of what would be considered normal behavior if done to a lesser degree or done infrequently. Impulse control disorder is defined by the following key features:

  • Repetitive engagement in a behavior despite negative consequences
  • Inability to fully control the problematic behavior
  • Experiencing strong urges or cravings to engage in the problematic behavior
  • Performing problematic behavior to release pressure or feel pleasure

Types of Impulse Control Disorders

There are five types of impulse control disorders identified as stand-alone disorders: kleptomania, pyromania, intermittent explosive disorder, pathological gambling and trichotillomania. Impulse control is also a key feature in other mental illnesses, including bulimia, substance abuse and paraphilias. However, these are categorized as other types of mental health disorders rather than as impulse control disorders.

Kleptomania

Kleptomania is the inability to control the urge, or impulse, to steal. This definition does not refer to stealing for necessity, such as food. Instead, kleptomania refers to stealing items that are unneeded, meaningless or lacking in value.

Pyromania

Pyromania refers to the inability to control the impulse to set fires. A person with pyromania feels an intense urge, which may present as anxiety or emotional blockage, that is only relieved by setting fires. Relief from these difficult feelings is the main reason people with pyromania set fires, though some people with the condition also report feeling intense pleasure as well.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

Intermittent explosive disorder refers to the inability to control the impulse to respond in rage to minor triggers. In some cases, this rage may escalate to physical violence. Unlike other disorders with similar features, the repeated impulsive outbursts of anger that characterize intermittent explosive disorder are excessive compared to the triggering event.

Pathological Gambling

While once considered an impulse control disorder, the most recent update to diagnostic criteria has recategorized pathological gambling as a process addiction. Also called compulsive gambling, a person with pathological gambling cannot resist the impulse to gamble. The thought of gambling becomes so overwhelming and intrusive that the only relief is to engage in gambling.

Trichotillomania

Trichotillomania refers to a disorder in which a person experiences irresistible impulsive urges to pull out their hair. They may pull hair from their scalp or other areas of the body. Not everyone who has this disorder finds the act of pulling out hair to be pain-free. However, even for people who find it to be unpleasant, the urge to do it is so intense that it overrides concerns for pain. This disorder was also recently recategorized and is now considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Unspecified Impulse-Control Disorder

This diagnosis focuses more on people who show the general signs and symptoms of an impulse control disorder without the impulse in question falling into any pre-established categories.

Symptoms of Impulse Control Disorder

Impulse control disorder symptoms vary somewhat depending on the specific type of disorder. However, there are some symptoms common to most impulse control disorders, including:

  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Lack of patience
  • Inability to delay gratification
  • Severe anxiety and tension before engaging in impulsive behavior
  • Continuing to act on a specific impulse repeatedly despite negative consequences

Impulse Control Disorder Symptoms in Children

Impulse control disorder symptoms in children may be harder to define than in adults. Defining the disorder is not difficult because the symptoms are different, but because children are usually less adept at expressing their thought processes, feelings and emotional experiences, and their impulsive behaviors can be fairly common.

Impulse Control Disorder Symptoms in Adults

By the time a person has reached adulthood, they may be able to express their feelings and related thought processes better. An adult may be able to explain feeling intense anxiety and tension with an urge to engage in the impulsive behavior that leads to acting on the urge. Remember that in most cases, the person will experience or be at risk of experiencing negative consequences of their impulsive behavior.

Causes of Impulse Control Disorder

Currently, there is no definitive, known cause of impulse control disorder. However, there are many theories on various impulse control disorder causes. Some of the most common theories on what causes impulse control disorder include:

  • Growing up in a chaotic environment, including homes where abuse and other forms of violence occur frequently
  • Having a close family member with a mental health disorder.
  • A chemical or structural difference in the brain, which can affect planning and decision-making

These potential causes are by no means a guarantee that an impulse control disorder will develop, even if all three possibilities are present. These general potential causes can also link to other disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder, substance use disorders, depressive disorders and many more. These specific causal factors also are present in many people who never develop a mental health disorder.

Impulse Control Disorder and Parkinson’s Disease

In recent years impulse control disorders have become a new area of focus for research on Parkinson’s disease. This research may provide backing for suggestions of brain chemicals being at least partially responsible for the development of impulse control disorders. Dopamine agonist medications are a common treatment for Parkinson’s disease, but they may cause the development of impulse control disorders in some patients. While more research is necessary to say for sure whether or not these medications definitively cause impulse control disorders, they may be able to shine a light on the cause and development of impulse control disorders.

How Is Impulse Control Disorder Diagnosed?

Impulse control disorders can be difficult to diagnose. One must determine that the behavior is the result of an urge that is unbearable. In many cases, it is difficult to determine if a person finds the behavior to be particularly rewarding or if uncontrollable impulses cause it.

Who Is at Risk for Impulse Control Disorder?

People diagnosed with impulse control disorders may have some common traits. Most people diagnosed with impulse control disorders:

  • Are male
  • Are adolescents or in early adulthood
  • Have a history of drug abuse
  • Have a history of witnessing violence
  • Have a family history of mental health disorders
  • Have a family history of substance use disorders

Impulse Control Disorder Statistics

Impulse control disorder statistics are hard to come by. There is not enough research on these disorders in comparison to other groups of mental health disorders such as depressive disorder or substance use disorders. Statistics on the prevalence of impulse control disorders ranges from less than 1 percent of the population to as much as 5 percent of the population. Common co-occurring disorders include substance use disorders and ADHD.

If you or a loved one struggles with co-occurring addiction and impulse control disorder, help is closer than you think. The Recovery Village can provide treatment for both of these conditions. Reach out to a representative today to take the first step toward a better life.

Impulse Control Disorder
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